Why No One is Talking about the Ohio Train Derailment (and Other Conspiracies)

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On the night of February 3rd, a Norfolk Southern train carrying dangerous chemicals like vinyl chloride derailed about 50 miles outside of Pittsburgh, in a little town called East Palestine, Ohio. A huge fire erupted, leading authorities to evacuate the nearby residents and call in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to try to contain the situation. The experts on the scene were immediately concerned with the possibility of highly combustible materials exploding, and so they decided to perform a controlled explosion that would allow them to siphon the chemicals into an empty trough and dispose of them more safely. As of two weeks later, an investigation is ongoing and no cause for the derailment has been officially announced. The EPA is monitoring the air and waterways and says that while there may be a lingering smell, it’s safe for residents to return home.

This is all news to you, what I just said, because NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT IT. No one. I mean, except for the local newspapers. And some national ones. I mean, yes, the ten largest newspapers in the United States have been covering it for the past two weeks. The New York Times alone has done four articles. It was on Good Morning America. So I do in fact agree with this Redditor, who says “The fact that I haven’t seen a news article/broadcast without having to search for it regarding this incident is extremely troubling.” That IS troubling. What news are you consuming, my dude? Oh, right. Reddit.

It’s understandable that certain people think that this is a story that is being covered up by the mainstream media: I actually see these kinds of comments on any news story that people think is important. Despite the fact that social media allows us to pick and choose our “bubbles,” building little niches we never have to leave, broader culture can still feel overwhelming: I have zero interest in the royals, for instance, and I live in a country where we quite formally told them to fuck off 250 years ago, but for some reason I still know that Harry and Meagan live in Montecito and he just wrote a book called “Spare.” My culture really really wanted me to know that so I know it and now I can’t un-know it.

While the media has reported frequently on the East Palestine derailment, we think of it as a somewhat obscure thing because we aren’t absolutely SATURATED in it the way we are with things that corporations can sell us, or “funny” stories we can meme like Chinese spy balloons.

Many people also think of this as a more obscure story because of the possibility of conspiracy no one died in the derailment, but dangerous chemicals were released into the air, the ground, and water, and we’ve all seen Erin Brokavich: there’s no way the release of these chemicals isn’t going to be damaging, and so the company responsible has every reason to try to cover it up.

If you missed Erin Brokavich, back in the 1950s and ‘60s, my friendly neighborhood utility company, PG&E, dumped water containing chromium 6 in unlined containers in the small town of Hinkley, California, where it infected the groundwater and likely led to an increase in cancer diagnoses amongst the residents. PG&E didn’t bother to inform anyone until 1987, the same year a study was published linking chromium 6 and cancer in humans. But PG&E paid a for-profit science firm to publish a retraction of that study under the name of the lead author over his written objections. They then managed to get their own “experts” appointed to a panel convened by the California EPA (CalEPA) to downplay the risks of chromium 6 in drinking water, successfully delaying the state from limiting industries’ use of the carcinogen and allowing PG&E to try to dismiss a second lawsuit from another town they poisoned.

Can you believe it? Yet another case of a multi-billion dollar industry buying science in order to prioritize profits over the health and safety of people.

So as conspiracy theories go, one could find crazier than “Norfolk Southern Railway is a $12 billion company that knows they might be in deep shit for dumping known carcinogens onto an entire town, so they’re using their money and influence to make this all seem safe when it absolutely is not. And if no one is paying attention, no one will notice when this entire town has cancer a decade from now.”

In fact, you may be interested to learn that train derailments are incredibly common in the US, at about 4 per day. Yeah, four every single day. Really like four and a half. They don’t always spew toxic chemicals everywhere, of course…hazardous spills from trains only occurred on average, let’s see, almost twice per day in the past decade. That may be why you’re now seeing (or not seeing, according to TikTok’s breaking news reporters) reports of other trains carrying hazardous materials derailing

In fact, almost one decade ago the exact same thing that we’re seeing in Ohio happened in Paulsboro, New Jersey: this time it was a ConRail train, which was ALSO carrying vinyl chloride, and ALSO derailed, and ALSO leaked the chemical into the air and directly into aa creek that feeds into the Delaware River. While residents at the time reported feeling common symptoms like headaches and dizziness, I can find no current study on the long-term health effects experienced by the people in the town who either evacuated or stayed. So, it’s hard to say whether or not the cleanup was successful or whether it led to an increase in cancer, but apparently ConRail thought it might because they immediately offered  the residents about $500 each to promise to not sue them. A local news station sent someone to meet with a ConRail representative with a hidden camera:

“If I sign this and I was to get cancer, what would happen?” the resident said.

“The Conrail representative responded by saying, “Well first of all, they would have to prove it was caused by the derailment, and how are they going to prove that?”

“Residents were told they couldn’t have a copy of the confidential agreement, but Action News got one. The contract releases the company of any liability for the incident, including unknown injuries spanning from brain damage, dementia, cancer, and even death.”

I certainly understand that a company wouldn’t want to be sued by every New Jersey resident who gets liver cancer for the next 50 years, but if they were operating in good faith, why not let people have a copy of the binding agreement they’re signing?

It’s reasonable to expect Norfolk Southern to behave the same way in East Palestine: downplay the risks of these chemicals, highlight the difficulty of proving future damages, and get residents to sign away their rights for as little money as possible.

So I do really feel for these residents, even while I disagree with some of the more dramatic reaction from people who, frankly, have no idea what they’re talking about. With that in mind, here’s a breakdown of popular claims that I think we should and shouldn’t be worried about:

  1. Newspapers “covering this up” by not reporting on it? No. Obviously not, and that journalist who was “arrested for reporting the truth” wasn’t.
  2. Hazmat experts purposely poisoning the residents with the controlled burn? No. Every expert I’ve seen discuss this, whether they were there in East Palestine or watching from far away, seem to agree that the worst danger was of these train cars exploding and blasting hazardous materials far and wide. Yes, burning off the chemicals released them into the air, which is BAD, but air monitors suggest that the most dangerous levels occurred in the actual crash, then briefly during the burn off, and are now back to normal. Not burning it off would have been much, much, much worse.
  3. The air still isn’t great? Yes. “Normal” air quality levels overall does NOT mean that residents won’t still experience irritation and coughing, and they have every right to continue to be pissed about that. They also have every right to be pissed about their chickens and fish dying thanks to the initial release of chemicals in the crash itself.
  4. The chemicals getting into the water supply? Sort of: people should be worried, and again, I understand the skepticism around the government keeping a billion dollar corporation in check. That said, “trust but verify”: trust that scientists are appropriately monitoring the water quality, and verify that no one is being stifled.
  5. This all being a “a coordinated attack from state actors to harm the agricultural community known as “The Amish” by poisoning the rainwater & arable land in the area?” Okay yeah, that one is true. Absolutely. America’s greatest enemy, Hamish Yoder, has finally been defeated. No longer will the Amish terrorize us with their soft pretzels and wooden toys. And all we had to do was crash a train full of vinyl chloride into a town nearby some of them.
  6. This is the natural result of our government continuing to chip away at employee rights and calls for safety in order to protect multi-billion dollar corporations? YES. Yes! Yes! THIS is your big anti-government conspiracy, people, and it’s not hidden in the least. Railroad unions have been calling for change for months, for YEARS, screaming into the void that there is a “ticking time bomb” thanks to their employers “dramatically increas(ing) both the length and tonnage of the average train while cutting back maintenance and inspection,” maximizing profits by sacrificing safety, insisting that trains aren’t carrying hazardous materials so long as they’re only carrying a few cars-worth of hazardous materials, reducing workers and increasing their hours until exhausted people are running enormous trains carrying hazardous materials with a skeleton crew that simply CANNOT respond appropriately to emergencies. And how did our government respond? By forcing the union to go back to work, because the companies refused to do anything and a strike would “hurt the economy.”

So there you go: a real conspiracy about a corrupt government putting constituents at risk to benefit billionaires. Let’s focus on that, and not get distracted by the fear-mongering.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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